Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Horses--And Mule-- Go to the Fairgrounds!

Elementa and Juliane
Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       It was off to the nearby fairgrounds for a little cross-country schooling for four of our equines--Elementa, Nitelite, Kip, and Brit the mule.  More about mules in a moment.  

       This next picture is four-year-old Elementa jumping telephone poles for the first time with Juliane's brother Hadrien Dykiel:

Elementa and Hadrien
Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011 

       And here is Anne Dykiel schooling our little yet intrepid 12.2-hand pony, Nitelite.  Anne is also looking back to see if her little daughter Dana is okay:

Nitelite and Anne
Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       Next, of course, is eleven-year-old Dana on our ten-hand pony Kip:

Kip and Dana
Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

And last, our athletic little pony mule Brit, ridden by Juliane:

Brit and Juliane 
Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011 

Anne Dykiel brought her flip camera, so here's a brief YouTube of the jumping:  


                             Mule School

                           Brit                                                    Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

           As you've seen in the photos and YouTube, our little pony mule Brit is an extraordinary jumper.  Yet, that talent is not unique to her:  mules, as a rule, are excellent jumpers!  Mules are also terribly misunderstood.  When I was growing up, Perry Como often sang a song with the following stanza:

       A mule is an animal with long funny ears,
       He kicks up at everything he hears.,
       His back is brawny but his brain is weak,
       He's just plain stupid with a stubborn streak,
       So, by the way, if you hate to go to school,
       You may grow up to be a mule.

But before we get to that cautionary--and totally absurd--tale, let's make sure of our terminology:

       --  male mule = john mule

       --  female mule = molly mule 

       --  A mule is the offspring of a jack (male) donkey and mare        (horse).  

       --  A hinny is the offspring of a stallion (horse) and jenny or jennet (female donkey).

       --  A burro is another name for a small donkey. 

       --  donkey x zebra = zedonk

       --  horse x zebra = zorse

      A mule is a hybrid and is usually--but not always--sterile.  A donkey has 62 chromosomes and a horse, 64.  A mule has 63, and though a jack foal is usually sterile he still should be gelded for the same reasons as a horse.

      A mule can be any size:  it all depends on the size of the donkey.  A "Mammoth Jack," which is any donkey 14.2 and up, crossed with an 18-hand shire can produce one wicked big baby.  A miniature donkey crossed with a miniature horse will result in a miniature mule (under 38 inches).

     "You actually ride her?!"  People have asked me that question.  I believe it's because most mules they see are probably donkeys carrying various loads in Mediterranean countries or, as has happened on several occasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of pounds of explosives attached to timing devices.  I doubt radical Islam will accord these poor creatures martyrdom despite their tragic deaths.  Anyway, with no vested biological interest in the future, what would a mule want with 72 virgins, anyway?

       But back on task.  Yes, we ride our mule as many people do theirs.  Mules now compete successfully in eventing and dressage.  In fact, mules are legal to compete at the highest levels in the U.S.  But not CDI's.  Those are international competitions and governed by the FEI (International Equestrian Federation).  And, as I understand it--and I don't really understand it--they are not permitted to enter show jumping competitions.  A certain views of aesthetics?  Fear of more (and good) competition?

       Mules are highly intelligent, athletic creatures generally more hardy than horses.  Their muscles are smoother than those of horses and therefore pack more power.  They rarely need shoes and are more resistant to various bacteria and pathogens.  For further information visit this web site:
       The donkey half of the mule evolved in the mountains of northeast Africa.  They formed loose constellations rather than tightly bound herds.  That's the reason their bray is so loud--so they can communicate up and down and across mountains.  They don't flee immediately--as do horses, who are animals of the plains--when they sense danger.  Such a reflexive response would lead to death by falling. Instead, they freeze and evaluate their situation.  They decide then either to stay where they are or to move off quietly.

       So, given their independent decision-making, why should they listen to us?  They shouldn't, that is, unless we offer them considerate and kind leadership, and opportunities to learn without coercion.  They need to see the why in the question you're asking.

       Famed natural horseman Pat Parelli--also the founder of the American Mule Society--states:  "You gotta' treat a mule, like you ought to treat a horse."

       I once watched a moving program on mules and their handlers
who were in China during WWII.  Several soldiers remembered how these mules became their best friends.  With tears in their eyes, they told how they were all loaded in a Navy amphibious transport to relocate to an island in the South Pacific.  The ship was blown up by the Japanese.  Most of the men were lowered to safety in lifeboats.  But when their ship finally broke apart they witnessed the heartbreaking scene of the mules swimming amongst the boats searching for their respective handlers.

      Most horses would not do this.  Remember The Black Stallion?
After the storm and dramatic shipwreck that opens the movie, the Black happens to swim by Alec, who grabs onto the lead line attached to the horse's halter.  But the horse wasn't swimming around looking for the kid who gave him sugar.  A horse's DNA tells him to "Get the hell out of Dodge!"

      So, if you want a great and devoted friend, and an incredible athlete, consider purchasing or rescuing a mule.   Here's a place in New Hampshire that often has terrific mules and donkeys for adoption:

   Ainslie and Dolly                                                                                                       Anne Dykiel copyright 2011

       Next week Dolly will have a rider on her back for the first time.  We plan to video it, so please join us next week, too.  And many thanks for reading The Windflower Weekly.
                                                          --  Ainslie




Friday, June 17, 2011

Gil Merrick Clinic and Mystic Valley with Tica and Turkeys

    Tica                                                                                                    Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

            On Saturday, June 4th, I had the opportunity to watch my instructor Linda Parmenter ride Tica in a clinic with Gil Merrick.  Mr. Merrick has held numerous positions in the dressage world, the last as USEF High Performance Dressage Director.  In addition to his busy schedule as a clinician, he heads his own consulting practice, Mastery Concepts, developing programs that enable participants to achieve their goals efficiently and effectively.

        This commitment to excellence played out before my eyes as I watched this gentle master of communication skillfully elicit the best from each horse and rider.  Through the use of gymnastic exercises--never forced--Mr. Merrick virtually charmed harmony and alignment out of each pair.  Tica had never been to this venue--the beautiful Ark in Harvard, MA--and the declining shafts of late afternoon sun that fell in light streaks on the dark footing concerned her.  However, in combination with Linda's tact and Mr. Merrick's ability to come up with just the right exercises,  I witnessed flashes of brilliance I'd not seen before in my mare.  Here is a photo--somewhat grainy due to the declining light--of Linda and Tica:

                Tica and Linda                                                                Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011
                              Gil Merrick clinic

      One week later it was off to the beautiful grounds of the Mystic Valley Hunt Club in Connecticut.  As I watched the competitors and their teams set up in the temporary stabling in the indoor, I was reminded of the nomadic Mongols and their yurts.  Rugs, curtains, chairs, coffee jars with daisies on card tables, foodstuffs and drink, not to mention shavings, hay, supplements and equipment were arranged with a simultaneously efficient and often aesthetic eye.  

       I myself added a bit to the agrarian dimension.  I brought three one-week-old turkeys.  (Baby turkeys are called poults.)  I had left my husband Jim to take care of eight horses, our two dogs--one aged and incontinent--two cats, a parrot, a bunny, and fourteen chickens.  So I thought the least I could do was take care of the the turkeys.  Here are Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea:

      Until last year I had never given turkeys a second thought except on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Oh, I'd known that  Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national bird.  One reason he cited was its great intelligence and courage.  But those were wild turkeys, radically different from the stupid, unfortunate things placed on my table.  It would not be until decades later that I had my first "non-platter" turkey  experience.  I was in my local grain store and saw two cages full of two-day-old poults.  They were adorable and so I took two home.

       What first impressed me was how gentle and quiet these little creatures were.  They didn't panic and run around at the sight of a human looking down at them as did my baby chicks.  In fact, they easily allowed themselves to be held and would close their eyes when I scratched the sides other heads.  But perhaps this lack of fear and willingness to bond with non-turkeys was just another aspect of their limited IQ.  I had also been told that they were of such diminished mental capacity that they would look up into a rain
storm and drown.  This called for research.

      I googled "turkey intelligence" and came up with the national intelligence department of the government of Turkey.  Next I punched in "turkeys and rain."  National rainfall of the country of Turkey, anybody?  So, then I just hit "domestic turkey" and up it all came, including a Butterball web site with hundreds of recipes.  And then, finally, an article about their emotional intelligence.  Domestic turkeys--i.e., those engineered by us--carry a defective gene that can cause them to exhibit defective behaviors such as looking straight up at the sky during a rain storm.  These are known as tetanic torticollar spasms.

      Turkeys have many and varied vocalizations they utilize to communicate with one another.  As of yet, very few are understood by us.  But we do know they are highly social creatures and will play and dance seemingly for the sheer joy of it.  And they appear to experience emotional loss.  When a member of a flock is injured, dying or dead,  others in the flock will stand vigil for several hours.  Biologist refer to this as the "great wake."

       The two little poults I had last year--more frequently than not--would choose to be with people if they were outside.  In fact, they would happily perch on the back of a chair and hang out when ever I had friends over.  Once, my friend Anne and I were on the lawn trying to elicit pleasant sounds from our recorders.  At the sound of the first notes, the little poults came running up, fluffed out their feathers and took a seat next to us.  It was as if they were taking in a lawn concert at Tanglewood.

      So, are domestic turkeys stupid?  I don't think so.  Yes, they're awkward and can't fly but that's because they have been grossly genetically mutated and manipulated by us.  Their breasts are so over-developed that they often tip forward and fall down.  They've been bred to be so huge that their legs break down because they are unable to support their own weight.  They can't fly for the same reason. 

      Time and again I have witnessed and--and at times, myself-- engaged in the convenient caricature.  It makes it easier to shoot, consume, or vilify creatures.  More on this in a future blog when I talk about coyotes.

      But back to dressage at Mystic or rather, turkeys at Mystic.  My little turkey threesome were a charming addition to the stabling area.  They quietly slept, chirred, and cheeped and pecked at their hay bedding.  The competitors loved them.

      The first day was sunny and warm so they were happy, but the second was cold and rainy.  My babies were cold!  What to do?  Here's what I did:

                      Turkey poults at Mystic in Apron                      Lois Yukins Copyright 2011                                                                                         
       I had an apron with me.  All you horse people reading this know it was not to whip up gourmet meals but to protect me from the mud and manure of daily equestrian life.  It had pockets which I stuffed with hay and then stuffed with three turkey poults.  Now warm, they immediately went to sleep.   I sat in a chair with them for a while but was soon bored.  I wanted to watch the show even if Linda and Tica weren't in the ring.  So, off the four of us went.  And it wasn't long before I ran into "S" and four star international judge Lois Yukins.  Lois and I have been friends for nearly twenty years and she couldn't resist taking this snap with her I Phone.  Thank you, Lois!  (I think.)

       I will be giving you updates on Louis, Clark, and Sacagawea.  I have never had full-grown turkeys.  Sadly, last summer my two little poults, as well as six of my chickens, fell victim to a fox who used a rock to launch herself my coop.  But the coop has now been repaired, and we're only going to let the poultry out when we're outside to provide some degree of predator deterrent.

          Tica and Linda were absolute stars, coming up with scores of 65+ and 68+ for First Level 1 and First Level 3, respectively.  Here is a snap taken in Tica's warm-up prior to her best test yet:

       Tica and Linda                                                                                                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       The Mystic Valley Hunt Club is a beautiful venue for any kind of event.  The cross country course is gorgeous, and I spent a number of hours hand-grazing Tica in the lush grass.  Here's what it was like, dragonflies and all:

             Tica and dragonflies at Mystic Valley                                          Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       I am hoping that my finger and shoulder will be healed enough to ride Tica at King Oak.  Then Dressage at the Seacoast and--with luck--NEDA Fall.  I did miss riding her, though it was a treat to see what she could do with Linda on board.

      I should also mention Linda's wonderful dog Jackson who was at the show with us.  He came to Linda this winter via a Doberman Retriever Rescue program.  He hadn't had much training, if any, when he arrived, but now he is a perfect citizen.  This was due to Linda's unwavering commitment and training methods.  Unfortunately, he tested positive for heart worm.  Happily, he will recover.  But what the X-ray also revealed was that someone had fired a round of bird shot into Jackson's chest.  Miraculously, it didn't damage any vital organs.  I can only hope that when the time comes for whoever shot this dog to arrive at those "pearly gates," standing right next to St. Peter, there will be a pack of Dobermans baring their pearly teeth. 

       This is Jackson at Mystic Valley:

                   Linda's Jackson                                                         Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011
                                   Mystic Valley 

       And last, but never least, is Dolly snacking while on yet another trail ride with Tica:

              Dolly at Stream                                                                                                 Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       Tomorrow after lessons a group of us will be heading to the Groton, MA, fairgrounds to introduce the horses and Brit the mule to some of the little cross country jumps there.  I will be packing my camera, so please check next week's blog.

       See you soon and thanks for reading The Windflower Weekly!

                                                                -- Ainslie  



Monday, June 6, 2011

Tica Breaks My Finger and I Take Her To Saratoga

       First, before we get to the finger story and Saratoga, I wanted to let you know that Dolly continues to learn that people are a good thing (that is, at least good people are a good thing):
                     Dolly and Miabella                                                       Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

      How did Tica break my finger?  Whenever students ask questions like, "Why won't she canter?!" or "Why won't he stand still
when I'm trying to get on?" or, simply, "Why is she doing that?" the official technique here is to answer such questions with another question.  For example, "What are you doing to cause her to do that?"  Of course, it's easier--and natural--for kids (and some adults) to want to find fault with the horse when they are frustrated.  During the first lesson they learn that they are the ones who are supposed to be in charge--that they are training the horse.  And, hopefully, by the end of the lesson they've achieved a measure of success in directing their equine partner and feel empowered rather than frustrated.

       So, no, Tica really didn't break my finger; her reins that were in my hand when she bolted off at a gazillion miles an hour did. 

      The day before that happened, Juliane, Elementa, Tica, Dolly, and I had had our golf course experience.  So, I now decided simply to pony Dolly behind Tica.  These days she was leading in-hand very well--giving to pressure--so I thought I'd give it a shot.  All went well until we got to the huge steel plate that the water department had placed over the stream that runs as an outlet from Nagog Pond.  Now, Tica, like all horses, is suspicious of any unknown object that moves or makes a noise.  We've worked a great deal trying to desensitize Tica, but she still doesn't trust fully yet.  Here she is returning across the steel plate after the first golf course caper:

                         Tica                                            Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

            I'd say she looks pretty relaxed about it that day.

       And here's Dolly, equally relaxed.

                                         Dolly on Metal Plate Bridge                 Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       Since Tica decided that on this particular later day she now had "issues" with the metal plate, I got off and led her across.  In case Dolly balked, and to avoid having to drop the lead in case I ran out of length, I unhooked her.  I was reasonably confident she would follow Tica.  She did.

       To avoid temptation I decided not to take the trail that ran along the golf course but another trail that ran by the pond.   Just as I re-mounted Tica, an animated Dolly surged surged past with an "I-know-where-we're-going attitude," and trotted quickly out of sight.  I pressed Tica forward but no Dolly was to be seen.  I called her name.  The horse who often whinnies in return was silent.  I turned to the trail I'd first planned to take and Tica paused, sniffing the air in the direction of--sigh, yes--the golf course.   I called her name again:  a return whinny.  That's where she was.
       As Tica and I walked up the trail I called again.  I didn't really want to show myself and hoped Dolly would come cantering back.
       "She's over here!" a male--and unfortunately, very human voice--replied.
       I peeked between the trees.  Two hundred yards away two men stood with Dolly on a putting green!
       "Dolly!  Dol--ly!"
        Perhaps it was the increased combination of urgency and fear in my voice, but Dolly came flying off the green and rejoined us in the woods.
        I decided I'd pony her for the remainder of the ride and hooked the lead to her halter.

       All that went very well until the return ride and that metal plate.  Tica said no.  Rather than dealing with her refusals and keeping Dolly's mind--and head--off the knee-high grass, I decided to dismount and lead them both across.  Tica very slowly, and very carefully--and therefore, more noisily--began to pick her way across.  Dolly had no such problem.  Striding ahead on my left she pushed me into Tica, who immediately determined that our newly combined width posed a clear and present danger to her existence.  Hence, her (and my finger's) gazillion mile an hour blast-off.

       Dolly shot off in the other direction, but thankfully I'd dropped her lead.  Otherwise,  Tica and Dolly could claim to have re-invented a form of medieval torture.  I glanced at my hand.  The middle finger was twisted and at an angle I'd never seen before.   And it hurt!  I grabbed it with my other hand and yanked it back where it belonged.

       I then carefully walked Tica back over the plate and collected Dolly.  But on the return Tica recalled that, going in this direction, she had panicked.  And if she had panicked, well, there had to be a good reason.   Maybe it was the horrible yank in the mouth that stupid human Ainslie gave me when I tried to get the hell out of Dodge.  Of course, it doesn't matter that it happened after she became frightened.  It just confirmed that her initial reaction had been correct.  I tried to undo her rein from one side of her bit so I could have her walk behind Dolly, but my finger kept dislocating.  After five dislocations and five adjustments, I gave up and put the reins behind Tica's run-up stirrups.  Tica would have to negotiate the metal slab on her own.  As soon as Dolly and I disappeared around a bend I heard the sound of high-stepping hooves on metal!  Tica re-joined us.

       Fortunately, Juliane was at my house so she was able to take care of Dolly and Tica when I got back.  I drove to the doctor, who sent me to a hand surgeon who said the break was tiny but the finger badly traumatized.  So, he sent me to yet another place to get a custom splint.  The good news:  I could still ride.

       Four days later I drove the four hours to Saratoga Springs, New York.  Jennifer Symon, owner of Tica's half-brother Navarro and a dear friend, saved me.  She did absolutely everything--set up Tica's stall, gave her a bath, did my tack, and gave me bed and board.  One evening's dinner included a bottle of wine called "Fourteen Hands," the label of which had the image of a red horse head with a blaze.  Dolly, Jennifer knew, was 14.2.  And Dolly has a blaze.

       Tica was a star--the best she's ever been.  And if I hadn't made some silly mistakes--and been in pain--I think all our tests would have been in the sixties, instead of just the one which was 63+.  But, nonetheless, I was completely happy.  Here, I must also thank Emma Griffin, Jennifer's instructor, who warmed me up on the second day.  The test I rode after that was the best ever in my life.  And Tica knew it was her best, too.  Never until that moment had I seen her look so simultaneously proud and content.  Here we are warming up with Emma, who, though out of the picture, I am sure, is directing me to turn my right hand up:

   Ainslie and Tica                                                                                                   Jennifer Symon copyright 2011

   Americaucana chick                                                                                                  Anne Dykiel copyright 2011

        Since we now have, hopefully, a new fox-proof poultry coop, we are replenishing our chickens.  The above is an Americaucana chick which is a cross between an Aracauna--a Chilean breed--and a variety of American breeds.  The cross apparently remedies a lethal gene that pure Aracauna may carry but preserves the unique color of the eggs, which may be blue, green, or basic brown. These birds are also known as the Easter Egg chickens.

       And we also have six of these adorable little critters:

      Polish Crested Chick or "Top Hat"                                                               Ainslie Sheridan copyright May 2011

       Polish crested or "Top Hats" are known for amusing crests of feathers shooting out of their heads.  You can see a little cone on top from which these crests soon will emerge.  These little guys originally hail from Mongolia but were made popular by wealthy Polish nobles of the 14th century.  The crests--especially on the roosters--are so extreme that they make it difficult for them to spot predators.  I've also read that this causes them increased anxiety.  So we will have to be extra-vigilant on their behalf.  (It's either that or a trip to the Shear Madness salon up the road in Littleton.)  It is also an interesting and little-known fact that Big Bird of Sesame Street was modeled on a Polish Crested Rooster.  Remember those feathers sticking up out of his head?

      Here is another lesson going on.  This time it's Sarah on Kip with Juliane teaching.